December 30, 2012

Biddeford says good-bye to Trashtown

With the MERC incinerator closing this week, Biddeford is feeling a new kind of energy.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD - From his office at City Hall, Mayor Alan Casavant has a clear view of the "big blue obstacle" he feels has long stood in the way of economic development.

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Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant stands on Main Street in Biddeford on Friday. Casavant sees the closing of MERC this week as a turning point for the city after nearly three decades.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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People visit and look at art in Engine, an arts-driven nonprofit, during the monthly Biddeford ArtWalk along Main Street in Biddeford on Friday.

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There, in the heart of the downtown mill district, sits Maine Energy Recovery Co., the trash incinerator that for nearly three decades has generated complaints about odor, pollution and truck traffic. The facility will close this week, ushering in what downtown leaders hope is a new era of economic development and vibrancy for an old mill town once dubbed "Trashtown USA."

Casavant sees the departure of MERC as a pivotal moment for a city that has been dominated by a trash incinerator -- and the stigma that came with it -- for the past 25 years.

"It's so critical we exorcise our demon and move forward," he said. "This is a turning point for the city."

In late November, the city closed on the $6.65 million purchase of the MERC property from its Vermont-based parent company, Casella Waste Systems, which had decided to close the plant and shift operations to a new location in Westbrook. Casella will dismantle the plant and clean up the riverfront property, leaving in place only the smokestack, which holds revenue-producing cellphone towers. The city will pay for the purchase largely through that revenue and tax increment financing funds designated for downtown development.

By buying the MERC property, the city is demonstrating its commitment to economic development, Casavant said. At the same time, he said, the city is rewriting its story line.

"We're changing the paradigm, we're changing the stereotype and we're moving forward," he said. "Most people, I believe, are firmly behind the purchase because they understand it will change Biddeford's landscape."

But how much change and how quickly it will happen remain to be seen.

City officials and developers say they have seen an increase in the number of businesses and people interested in investing in Biddeford, including on the MERC site. At last three new businesses have opened downtown in the past month and new companies continue to move into the sprawling Pepperell Mill Campus, which has grown to include 80 residential units and 82 businesses. Other mill buildings house a mix of manufacturing and residential uses.

Daniel Stevenson, the city's economic development director, said he began receiving calls about the 8.5-acre MERC site as soon as the city announced it would buy the facility. The riverfront property is in the mill district and about a block off Main Street, a location he sees as ripe with development potential. The City Council ultimately will decide what it wants to do with the property. The council also will vote on a proposal to build a $10.1 million, 505-space parking garage downtown, an infrastructure improvement Stevenson and mill developer Doug Sanford say is essential to attracting more businesses to downtown and the mill district.

"The hustle and bustle you hear a lot of residents talk about seeing in the past, we'll have a resurgence of that," Stevenson said. "It will take time, but right now the groundwork is absolutely being laid for that."

Much of Biddeford's history is tied to downtown, where large brick mills built on the banks of the Saco River churned out textiles that were shipped around the globe. Generations of Biddeford families -- many of French Canadian descent -- made a living in the mills until the last textile manufacturer shut its doors in 2009, bringing that 150-year tradition to an end.

When WestPoint Home closed its blanket manufacturing operation in 2009, George "Pete" Lamontagne lost the job he held since returning to Biddeford after serving overseas in the military in the 1960s. A former city councilor who grew up downtown, he has watched closely the evolution of his hometown. Sitting at a coffee shop in the lobby of the North Dam Mill recently, he reflected on the changes he has seen.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Visitors to dp Plourde Crafts look at glass wood art in the North Dam Mill during the monthly Biddeford ArtWalk on Friday. The ArtWalk, along with other art events, is helping to transform Biddeford into an arts community.

Tim Greenway

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Visual artist Nora Tyron works on a drawing in her studio in the North Dam Mill during the ArtWalk. In the foreground is a piece from a series titled “The Family Tree” created from wood, canvas, stone, and acrylic paint.

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Cheryl Lichwell with her art created from ceramics and surface treatments in her studio.

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Mixed media artist Roland Salazar Rose in his live/work studio apartment among his new work.


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